Heightened security awareness since 9/11 hasn’t improved safety in most city buildings, according to a recent report from the city’s public advocate. The report, which characterized the city’s security force as “ill-prepared to protect its public,” found officer training to be outdated and frequently insufficient, wages low and turnover rampant.
SEIU Local 32BJ is hoping to change all that with a new campaign to organize security officers in approximately 600 high-end office buildings, including the Empire State Building and 250 Broadway.
The union hopes not only to raise wages and garner benefits for security officers, but to also raise the profile of a typically low-wage, entry-level occupation.“ Security is a workforce that’s often overlooked as part of building staff,” said Lenore Friedlander, director of organizing for 32BJ, which represents security officers as well as other building service workers like janitors and porters.
There are currently 60,000 security officers employed in New York City, about 2,000 of whom are already represented by 32BJ. The new initiative will target about 6,000 guards in midtown and lower Manhattan.
Guards’ wages now average between $9 and $10 an hour, with many making considerably less. Few companies offer health insurance or other benefits like sick days and vacation. As a result, turnover is high; a 2001 report found annual levels as high as 400 percent nationwide.
Keeping guards long term is vital, said Robert McCrie, professor of security management at John Jay College and an expert on the industry. Familiarity with a building is important, said McCrie, because “when exceptions occur, [guards] are in a better position to do the right thing, rather than just stumble and call for someone to give them some help.”
Training is also key. “The curriculum we use, it’s so old it’s pathetic,” said a security instructor at a city company, who declined to be named or identify his employer.
State requirements for security training were last updated in 1994, and mandate just eight hours of pre-job training, with an additional 16 on the job. That requirement is often ignored; 17 percent of workers surveyed by the public advocate reported having less than the 8 hours of pre-job training required by law. New York’s standards stand in stark contrast to those imposed on guards in Europe, where training programs often exceed 150 hours and sometimes 200.
Last fall, the City Council passed a resolution calling for the state to adopt more stringent security standards, but there’s been no movement in Albany thus far. (In November, the governor did sign legislation requiring stricter background checks.) For its part, 32BJ has developed a model 40-hour training program with city agencies that includes terrorism awareness and response, crime prevention and basic fire prevention and extinguishing skills—none of which are included in current state requirements.
Just ask Jesse Villegas, who mans the 34th Street entrance at the Empire State Building. Last summer, tenants filed suit against building management alleging reckless and negligent security practices. Howard Rubenstein, a spokesperson for the building’s management, said security has improved since 9/11 and the building’s safeguards are “based upon industry standards.”
That wasn’t good enough for Villegas. He sought out and paid for security courses on top of his initial 8 hours, but it hasn’t helped his wages. “I’m making $7.50 an hour,” said Villegas. “I’m going to stay at $7.50 an hour as long as I’m there.”